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Ain’t no mountain high enough

Kampala occupies a series of hills at an elevation of about 1,190 metres. This is quite a change from the Netherlands, where 26% of its area is located below sea level and only about 50% of its land exceeds one metre above sea level. Our highest ‘mountain’, the Vaalserberg is 323 metres high. I am definitely moving up.

In daily life, this is not very noticeable. Of course, with 2,000 metres as the generally accepted cut off point for high altitude, a mere 1,190 metres is not even close to impressive. Compare that with Uganda’s highest mountain, Mount Stanley at 5,109 metres or nearby Kilimanjaro at 5,895 metres. But have you ever tried exercising somewhere halfway to the top of your average mountain in the Alps? It is tough.

Whether it was the altitude, the heat, the steep hills (9% grade), the air pollution or all of the above, my body was struggling. Air at altitude is commonly mistaken for being lower in oxygen but actually air, at any level, contains 20.93% oxygen, 0.03% carbon dioxide and 79.04% nitrogen. However, as elevation increases, oxygen has a progressively lower partial pressure. This low atmospheric pressure in the thin air makes the blood less oxygen-rich as it travels to the muscles. In plain English, my first run lasted 15 minutes (the view was rewarding though).

The human body has a built-in mechanism to counter the effects of low oxygen in the immediate atmosphere. When the body senses that it is not receiving its accustomed level of oxygen, it determines that it must produce a greater number of erythrocytes (red blood cells), which carry oxygen to the bloodstream. The increase of transportation capability means that the body will be optimizing the amount of available oxygen.
I have come a long way since that 15 minute run and I can proudly say that I can now run 45 minutes up and down Prince Charles Drive without fear of my lungs exploding. There are many great places to run in Kampala, but Prince Charles is my favourite because the hill gradually slopes up. And because it goes past the residence of the Dutch ambassador, the Chinese embassy and the UN Commission for Human Rights of course.

They are so random and crazy that I question their status as ‘facts’ and do not dare cite their origin…

  • There is a significantly lower mortality rate for permanent residents at higher altitudes
  • Similarly, there is a dose response relationship between increasing elevation and decreasing obesity prevalence in the United States
  • On the other hand, people living at higher elevations also have a higher rate of suicide in the United States.

Adjusting to the altitude is one thing, dealing with matatus, bodas and one metre deep ditches is another. And let us not forget about the air pollution. While in the Netherlands air pollution comes mainly in the form of invisible particulate matter, in Uganda it is not so subtle. Black smoke coming out of cars, neighbours burning their trash, quite often I find my vision (and airways) temporarily clouded.

The six major urban air pollutants are: carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Long term exposure to increased levels of air pollution increases the risk of developing chronic heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer and asthma. Although Kampala is not usually covered in smog like cities such as Beijing or Mexico City, the air pollution entering your lungs can be more harmful since it is more concentrated. Breathing in a general collection of exhaustion fumes and smoke rising from factories far away is not the same as inhaling the smoke of someone burning plastics right next to you. You are at a particular risk of inhaling pollutants when exercising because you inhale more air that goes deeper into your lungs. Also, it is likely that you breathe mostly through the mouth during exercise, effectively bypassing the normal nasal filtration mechanisms.

Though this all sounds pretty scary, I am enjoying my runs up and down the hill, with little kids waving and saying muzungu (which means rich and/or white and/or intellectual person). To increase my intake of pollutants and risk more injuries I have joined the Kampala Amateur Volleyball Club. Twice a week I join about 30 Ugandan women on a concrete pitch somewhere outside to practice my favourite sport (running is useful, but nothing beats the fun of a team sport ). It is a great opportunity to meet new people, learn Luganda (or any of the other 20 languages being spoken here) and learn more about Ugandan culture in general. Also, they are pretty good so I am sure I will return home a better player.

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